The founder of Unplugged Retreats on why simplicity is the key to wellbeing during times of stress
Have you viewed your screen time stats lately? If you’ve been brave enough to check in on your digital habits in the era of #StayAtHome, it’s probable that (much like the half of humanity on lockdown) your online hours have been soaring. None of us predicted this 6 months ago while making our New Year’s resolutions. Some of us vowed to improve our digital wellbeing, while others predicted we’d be carving out more moments of analog existence, hailing 2020 the year of being “medium online“.
As it happens, 2020 is turning out to be the year of very much online. All-the-time online. The internet has been a lifeline. It’s accelerated some positive changes and shown us that remote work is possible. The sudden need for us all to be constantly connected has given more visibility to the digital divide, and the next generation might even come out of this with an increased appreciation for physical connections over digital ones.
It may seem we’ve developed a yearning for a life beyond screens – dreaming of days no longer defined by Zoom meetings, yoga classes, birthdays, weddings… But let’s not kid ourselves here: after becoming more reliant on tech than at any other time in history, a digital detox to help hit the reset button could become this Summer’s must-have accessory.
Luckily, there are people like Hector Hughes waiting in the wings to help us nurture a healthier relationship with technology.
Hector co-founded Unplugged, a startup that helps city dwellers learn to switch off and practice being present in nature. His own frustrations over being unable to disconnect led him to a ten-day silent retreat in the Himalayas, where he came upon his idea. Within a week of returning home, he’d quit his job and started Unplugged, and less than a year later is preparing to welcome his first guests to the retreat! And he still found time to offer his expert advice and philosophical outlook on maintaining calm and focus during these exceptional times.
What changes, if any, have you made to your environment during this time?
I’ve been solo quarantining so it’s been an interesting chance to experiment with my environment. Perhaps the most successful change is a standing desk – sitting at my desk for hours a day was not doing me good. Rather than get a proper standing desk I’ve placed my ironing board on top of my sofa. It works like a charm!
Aside from that, cleaning and decluttering my work environment really helps clear the mind, although I’m perhaps not as diligent with that as I should be.
When do you find it most difficult to focus? How do you overcome this?
After lunch, my focus definitely dips. I tackle this by taking a break- going out for a walk or doing some reading, for example.
I’m actually a big advocate of working fewer hours in the day. I think 2-3 hours of focused work is about right. If I can spend the rest of the day reading, thinking, or chatting with people then I find that my week’s actually more productive as my decision making is better.
On social media there are always people working harder, achieving more, and living more exciting lives. It’s overwhelming… I try and focus on getting myself in a positive frame of mind so that I can positively impact those around me.
How do you deal with the emotional aspects of productivity? For example, lack of motivation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling unsafe, etc?
I need to remind myself not to be too hard on myself.
We’re really quite self-critical. A lot of our problems stem from this negative self-talk. On social media there are always people working harder, achieving more, and living more exciting lives. It’s overwhelming…
I try and focus on getting myself in a positive frame of mind so that I can positively impact those around me.
In terms of tools, you hear over and over again about the benefits of meditation, exercise, sleep, etc, and they really do work. Fortunately, I’ve built up good habits in these areas over the last couple of years and that helps immensely.
Have you made any changes to your digital habits during this time? Why or why not?
It’s been a challenge! I find myself in a daily battle against the pull to my phone and laptop.
One good habit I’ve developed is switching off all devices at 6 pm and leaving them off until 9 am the next morning (unless I have an evening Zoom). I’ll spend the evening reading, get a good night’s sleep, and have 3 hours alone with my thoughts the following morning.
During the 9 am-6 pm period when my devices are on I’ve found it very difficult to resist the pull of social media, emails, and the rest. I deleted Twitter and Facebook last week but I’ve yet to make a decision on Linkedin!
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is really struggling to find focus or motivation during this time?
Build some screen-free time into your day.
Maybe it’s going for a walk and leaving your phone at home, or giving yourself a couple of hours in the morning before you go online. This time really helps clear the mind and gain perspective.
Also, start small!
It’s anxiety-inducing to think of all the good habits we should be doing, but if we start small and go for the things we enjoy then that’s more than enough.
What are the rules or boundaries you have put in place for yourself regarding news consumption, social media, or both?
I don’t follow the news- there’s a huge psychological cost to constantly following the news in my opinion, it very much feeds our negative bias.
If something is truly important, it will get through.
As I mentioned, I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter and have never been on Instagram. Linkedin is my one vice. Part of me says it is useful for launching Unplugged, but I had similar objections to deleting Facebook and Twitter which turned out to be false!
What tools or resources have you found most useful during this time?
I’m a big reader anyway so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the extra reading time during this lockdown. I find all the online classes too much and a little overwhelming.
The things that have really helped me get through this have been getting outside to exercise or walk, meditation, and regular phone calls with friends and family.
I’m optimistic that the current situation will lead to a growing awareness of the need for healthier digital habits… It’s about cultivating a simpler way of living without the constant stress from our devices.
What changes do you think the current crisis will have on people’s digital habits in the long term? Do you see this changing your original plans for Unplugged retreats?
I’m optimistic that the current situation will lead to a growing awareness of the need for healthier digital habits.
This trend is very much in line with what we’re trying to do with Unplugged. It’s about cultivating a simpler way of living, more aligned with nature, and without the constant stress we get from our devices.
I’m incredibly excited to get started and figure out how we can best help people unplug and provide them with the tools for a simpler, happier way of living.
Do you think your experience in the Himalayas prepared you in any way for the situation we’re now living in?
I think a lot of the way we deal with reality comes down to how we perceive the world. That experience, along with a number of other key experiences, have helped shape my perspective immensely. It has definitely helped me develop a perpetually optimistic outlook on life.
There’s a good saying- “We don’t get to choose what happens to us in life, but we do get to choose how we feel about it, and why would we choose to feel anything other than good?”- this is obviously extremely difficult in practice, but it’s a great idea to work towards!
I find that the worries and anxieties that fill our lives can sometimes be of our own creation. Oftentimes problems can be solved by challenging ourselves on the validity of those worries, taking a step back, and looking at the big picture.
How would you like to see the digital wellness movement evolve after the global pandemic? How do you think we can use technology more consciously and constructively?
I’d love to see more innovation in the space. People may already know that they should be more mindful of their digital consumption BUT they are not motivated to do anything about it.
I like what Elon Musk & Tesla have done with electric cars. Electric cars weren’t considered cool and had little chance of mass adoption, but Tesla set out to make something that is not just sustainable but also better looking, and more fun to drive than a regular car. To drive adoption, you really need to be better than the alternative.
Likewise, with digital wellbeing, it’s about creating innovations that motivate people to not spend their evenings watching Netflix, or their subway ride playing Candy Crush. Because that’s what we’re competing with.
My hope is that with Unplugged, we can be one of the key players that makes digital wellbeing the best and most attractive choice.